I have neighbors here in Jerusalem who make me cry. Every time I see them -- in the grocery store, on the bus, or at a wedding -- I am moved to tears by their sheer greatness. Each of them lunged into greatness at a particular moment, but the years of effort and exertion that followed that moment are perhaps more remarkable than their initial choice.
Two of them made choices where most of us would not even have noticed a choice to be made. Most of us would have decried the situation, "This is terrible! Something should be done about this." These women asked instead, "What can I do to remedy the situation?"
It is my honor to introduce you to my neighbors:
I first met Linda Sher when we were both attending a support group for women struggling with infertility. She had been married about five years without children. After a few months, I stopped going. I didn't see Linda again for several years. Then, at a Bar Mitzvah, I recognized her. She was standing by a baby carriage with a three-year-old at her side.
"Linda!" I exclaimed, "You have two children! I'm so happy for you."
Linda smiled and replied, "Actually, I have three children. This is my daughter Sophie." Linda gestured toward a tall, gangly girl, about 13 years old. The girl nodded politely, but her sullen expression betrayed no smile. She did not resemble either Linda or her husband, and was a full head taller than both of them.
"How nice," was all I could mutter. Who was this new daughter of Linda's?
A couple months later I bumped into Linda in the supermarket. This time she was alone. She related to me the story of how she had adopted Sophie.
Six weeks after the birth of her second child, Linda went, with her baby, to the religious girls' school where she was a teacher. When the baby needed to be nursed, Linda slipped into an unoccupied office.
Suddenly, a tall, gruff, American woman entered, apparently looking for the main office. She told Linda that her 13-year-old daughter had been accepted to this school, and, even though they were not observant, the girl really wanted to study here. She, however, wanted to send the girl to a dormitory school. She didn't want the child living with her, and there was no father to take the child off her hands. "We can't live together anymore," the woman complained.
Linda did not yet know that this woman had been abusing her child. All Linda did know was that the child was unwanted.
Had it been me, I would have gone into critical-and-condemning mode, and thought: "What a horrible woman! She's irresponsible and mean." And, knowing me, I would have said to her in a cutting voice: "Look, she's your child. You brought her into the world. If you can't handle her, you and she should go to a family therapist and work out your problems. You can't just pawn her off on a dormitory school."
"If you don't want her, maybe we can take her."
Linda Sher chose a different response. She looked the woman straight in the eye and said, "If you don't want her, maybe we can take her."
Within minutes it was agreed: Linda and her husband would adopt this unwanted child, sight unseen. And that's what they did.
It wasn't simple. Raising a child who has been abused and rejected is an endeavor that makes climbing Everest look easy. And Linda, then 35 years old, had an infant and a three-year-old to take care of as well. To compound the difficulty, Sophie was a brilliant child who questioned everything and was never satisfied with any answer less than Ultimate Truth. In addition, the labyrinthine Israeli bureaucracy made the adoption process exceedingly time-consuming and stressful; they questioned the Shers' sanity for wanting to undertake such heroic good. Nevertheless, Linda showered Sophie with unconditional love and patience.
Today Sophie is a well-adjusted and flourishing adult, happily married with a baby of her own. Whenever she talks about her upbringing, she calls the woman who gave birth to her, "my birth mother," while she calls Linda Sher, "my real mother."
If, sixteen years ago, you had seen Malka Yarom standing at a bus stop, you wouldn't have taken a second glance. A 47-year-old art teacher, the mother of seven children, Malka was a typical Jerusalem housewife.
As part of her teaching work, Malka became acquainted with many girls. She often invited them to her home for Shabbat meals. As the years went by, she danced at their weddings and rejoiced at the births of their children. Sadly, she also shared their sorrow when ten of them divorced from husbands who were abusive, addicted, or had simply abandoned the family.
It pained Malka to see these young women, once so full of vitality, worn down by the burden of raising children without the emotional or financial support of a husband. Most of us would have lamented the situation, with scathing condemnations for the ex-husbands. Malka instead decided to do something about it.
In the spring of 1992, she undertook to raise money to send these ten women away to a nice hotel for two days during the holiday of Shavuot. She and her family would take care of their children in her own modest apartment.
At the end of the holiday, when the women returned to fetch their children, Malka hardly recognized them. Their ashen complexions and wan expressions had been replaced by shining faces and bright smiles.
Today Malka helps over 400 widowed and divorced families in Jerusalem.
At that point, Malka could have congratulated herself on a job well done, and returned to her own full-time responsibilities. Instead, she started planning and raising funds for the next outing. This one would include the children, who suffered no less than their mothers from the emotional and financial deprivation of being abandoned by their fathers. During Chanukah of that year, Malka rented a bus and took 16 families for an all-day outing. They went to a farm where the children crushed olives into oil and baked pita bread, then to a Tel Aviv park. While the children were engaged in arts and crafts, the mothers participated in a seminar with a psychologist. The day ended with a boat ride in Jaffa harbor. Thus Malka's organization for fatherless families, "Em HaBanim Smeicha," was born.
Today over 400 widowed and divorced families in Jerusalem partake of the services of Em HaBanim . These include group therapy for the mothers, a choir for the boys, psycho-drama and jewelry workshops for the girls, a children's one-week summer camp, and excursions several times a year. Perhaps the most crucial program provides collective celebrations of Passover and Simchat Torah at a Kibbutz guesthouse, thus healing the hurt of no father to lead the Seder or dance with the Torah.
If you saw Malka Yarom at a bus stop today, you might well notice her. Her right side is mostly paralyzed, due to a stroke two years ago. As soon as the doctors allowed, however, Malka was back at her desk -- struggling to raise the funds to keep Ein HaBanim Smeicha going, organizing programs, and making sure that every one of her 400 families knew that there was one person who had not abandoned them.
During this month of Elul preceding Rosh Hashana, may each of us recognize the choices for spiritual growth and greatness that every day presents. Rabbi Shimon Green says that people err when they think that great people do great things. Rather, people who do great things become great people.